IN MY HIPPIE BACKPACKING DAYS, my idea of a good Mexican hotel was one that mosquitoes couldn’t invade. I didn’t care if other creature comforts had to take a backseat to budget considerations because that was part of the adventure. Then I grew older, wiser, and deeper of pocket—spoiled, some would say. And while I was learning to be spoiled in paradise, a new class of luxury hotels was emerging on the hidden coasts of Mexico. Far from the madding crowds of Cancún and Acapulco, these smaller and gentler destinations are generally located on secluded beaches, with luxurious rooms and pampering service.
Three years ago, while driving down a long stretch of pristine Mexican coastline between Puerto Vallarta and Manzanillo, my wife, Christy, and I spent one unforgettable night at a remote jungle-and-beach retreat called El Tamarindo. Only fourteen of the hotel’s lavish seaside casitas were finished at the time, and at night all two hundred of its employees left the property, leaving only the guards at the gate, several miles away, and us with a deserted beach lit by stars. The next morning, just as the sun was coming up, we discovered baby sea turtles emerging from their nest in the sand and struggling toward the water. So perfect was our brief time at El Tamarindo that Christy began to cry when we had to leave.
Now we had returned, kids in tow, to check out the recently completed Tamarindo and some other chichi resorts in the neighborhood. We flew into Puerto Vallarta on Continental Airlines, then rented a car and headed south, climbing from beach to alpine forests then down again to tropical ranchland interspersed with mango and papaya orchards. (There is also an airport at Manzanillo, only a forty-minute drive from El Tamarindo.) After three hours, we turned off the highway onto El Tamarindo’s impressive drive, ten miles of jungle-shrouded road ending at one of Mexico’s most picturesque beaches. Scattered beneath a dense canopy of towering palm trees are 27 bungalows (phone and fax 011-52-33-51-50-31; www.ghmhotels.com; rooms from $230). Most have their own small private pool, and all have thatched-roof palapas for outdoor dining and half a dozen places to relax on thick cushions and watch nature put on her round-the-clock displays of grace and beauty.
In all my travels I’ve found no more enjoyable spot for making love in the moonlight, mountain biking on miles of shaded trails, awakening to the songs of tropical birds, watching an endless variety of butterflies from the comfort of a hammock, surf casting for sea bass, building sand castles, or falling in love with my family all over again. One morning, Christy and our eight-year-old, Katie, took a long horseback ride through the jungle, then met up with four-year-old Lily and me at deserted Majahua beach, where we took turns galloping up and down the sand with Lily riding double in front. That afternoon, while the girls tried to dig a hole to China, I checked out the resort’s breathtaking golf course, which winds through the jungle-covered hills like a great green snake, making occasional dramatic plunges to the crashing waves of the Pacific. You arrive at El Tamarindo thinking that $300 a night is a little expensive for your budget, and within hours you’ve decided that you’d be willing to take a second note on your house to come back.
One of my fondest Tamarindo memories is of reclining on a beachside chaise with Katie after dinner. Above us was a glittering blanket of stars accompanied by the surprise appearance of two shooting stars, while around us darted bats, luna moths, and the mysterious shadows of giant night birds. For a few precious hours all was right with the world, and wisdom was passed from one generation to another, then back again. This time it was Katie who cried when we left.
Luckily, our vacation was just beginning. Thirty minutes south of El Tamarindo, we drove through mile after mile of coconut plantations fronting our second stop, the aptly named Grand Bay Hotel Isla Navidad (011-52-33-55-50-50, fax 011-52-33-55-60-71; www.grandbay.com; “superior” rooms from $325). A lavish, 1,200-acre resort overlooking a tranquil bay and a sleepy Mexican fishing village—and just twenty miles north of the Manzanillo airport—this place nearly has it all. Among the amenities are a spectacular 27-hole golf course designed by Texan Robert von Haage, a large marina dotted with sailboats and yachts from around the world, a multilevel swimming pool, three restaurants, luxurious rooms, and superfriendly service at every turn. The only thing missing is a great beach. For 50 cents, a water taxi will carry you across the lagoon to the beachfront town of Barra de Navidad. There you join a mix of locals and tourists wandering up and down its main street of small shops and restaurants overlooking the ocean. The beauty of the town is not its funky beach architecture so much as its pace, for everything here moves slowly, a talent most gringos have completely forgotten.
One of the main reasons I go to Barra is to fish with a local boatman named Ricardo “Colo” Amador. Fishing Pacific waters often requires cruising for one or two hours from shore to find the clear blue water that big game fish favor, but in Barra the blue water is just off the rocky point that shelters the town. It is not uncommon to find fast action fifteen minutes from shore.
This time I wanted to introduce my daughters to the wonders of the open sea. Happily, Colo, who runs his own outboard-motor panga , is also the new captain of a thirty-foot cabin cruiser chartered by the American-owned local sport fishing outfit Z Pesca ( www.zpesca.com, or you can contact Colo at 011-52-33-55-64-64). A bigger boat, I figured, might go a little easier on the queasy stomachs of a couple of young rookies (not to mention their mom). At eight on a beautiful, clear morning, we climbed on board the Maria Elvira, which